The art on the walls was the same, but the experience totally different as the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Walker Art Center welcomed the general public Thursday for the first time since mid-March.

“It’s an important moment,” said Mia executive director Katie Luber, who greeted visitors with a blue hospital mask secured over her mouth.

The Texas native started her job just 2 ½ months before COVID-19 shut down Twin Cities cultural centers. She stood near the entrance, where several cafe tables had been placed several feet apart.

No one walked into the cafe to order a coffee. Exhibitions that opened in February were still there, unseen for four months.

“It feels so good to have people back,” said Luber. “As soon as we closed, we started thinking about what it would be like to reopen.”

At Mia, that looks like only 250 visitors at a time, less than a quarter of the usual crowd.

Visitors have to reserve timed tickets online. Everyone must wear masks. Thick plastic walls separate patrons from employees. One-way directions appear on stairs. Writing on the floor asks people to keep their distance.

“It will be safe,” said Luber.

Eighty-five-year-old Vonne Danielson, a patterned mask snugly covering her face, had a moment with Luber before making a beeline to the stairs. “I missed you guys,” she told the museum director.

“It’s emotional to be back,” said Danielson, who said she usually visits Mia every other week or more. “When the museum was closed, I felt lost.”

But on this “reopening” day at the Walker and Mia, there weren’t any lines out the door.

Dan Hasty, 74, compared the experience with when he worked at Mia in the 1970s. It was closed for two years during an expansion project, so he drove the Artmobile, a gallery on wheels that traveled around the state.

When Mia finally reopened in 1974, “it was a mass of people just so anxious to get back in,” he said. “This is surreal; that was wonderful.”

“It was a flood of people,” said his friend Jim Kosmas, 73. “This is a trickle.”

Vincent Jarrett, 22, a visual arts major at Minneapolis Community and Technology College (MCTC), was eager to get back to the museum, especially after his classes moved online. With his girlfriend, he perused the “Yoshitoshi: Master Draftsman Transformed” exhibit in the Cargill Gallery, which opened Feb. 1.

“I like how people are slowly getting ideas on how to overcome this problem of COVID-19 wisely,” he said.

The Walker’s ‘big day’

At the Walker, it was a similar scene. Executive Director Mary Ceruti greeted people outside as they approached the art center’s Vineland Place entrance.

“It’s a big day for us museum people in the Twin Cities,” said Ceruti, wearing a solid black mask.

People came in small chunks every half-hour because of the 30-minute window for timed tickets.

Laurie Van Wieren, 69, a choreographer who used to work at the Walker as a security guard, said the museum felt the same as before.

“We’ve been having picnics right out the window, and then we look in and go, ‘Ohhh, will we ever get back there?’ ”

The exhibitions that the Walker had when it closed in mid-March — “The Expressionist Figure,” the Jasper Johns show — are the same ones it reopened with. That didn’t bother Van Wieren.

“When I was a guard, I spent hours with the same things, so I don’t mind it,” she said. “It’s like if you’re a film buff, you watch the same films over and over again.”

There was one big difference, she said. “Everyone is very friendly, and I like that.”

Mary Ahmann, who teaches film at MCTC, and her husband, Michael Kareken, an artist and instructor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, took their time walking through “The Expressionist Figure,” which opened last winter.

Egon Schiele’s 1910 drawing “Der Akt (Nude)” caught Ahmann’s eye.

“We’re looking at one of the artists who died of the 1918 influenza,” she noted “Seeing that on the wall made today’s pandemic feel closer.”